PRC proposals kick can down the road
The Bermuda Immigration and Protection Amendment Act 2021 will come into effect on December 1, 2021. This will create new pathways to a permanent resident’s certificate for long-term residents. Although previous Progressive Labour Party ministers responsible for immigration have spoken about Bermudian status, the new laws do not address that.
The question of Bermudian status for long-term residents is a vexed one. However, there is one group that has been consistently overlooked, and that is children who have been brought up Bermuda. This most recent amendment again fails to properly address their situation.
First, a potted recent history. Until it was scrapped in 2008 — 13 years ago now — there was a pathway to Bermudian status for children who had reached the age of 18, having been born in Bermuda or arrived here before the age of 6.
After a 2014 court decision, about one thousand long-term residents who had arrived in Bermuda before August 1989 were able to obtain Bermudian status. If they still had children under the age of 17, by the time they got status, those children would eventually have been able to get status also after five years. However, the children of PRCs who were over the age of 17 by 2015 or so, but had also been too young to have reached the age of 18 before July 31, 2008, — a mini-generation born roughly between 1990 and 1998 — were left behind. They were finally given a route to Bermudian status with the mixed-status provisions passed last year.
In the meantime, since the avenue to Bermudian status for children closed in 2008, a new generation of children, whose parents arrived after 1989, has been reaching adulthood. If their parents were lucky enough to qualify for PRC under the PLP’s 2012 Job Makers’ provisions — intended for senior executives of economically significant companies — then they will be able to get PRC themselves. Most of them, though, come from more humble backgrounds, and face an uncertain future.
They are told, quite literally in some cases, to pack their bags and leave Bermuda once they finish full-time education, unless they somehow qualify for a work permit — which, for children leaving school with little work experience, is rarely an option for their chosen career path. These children who have been forced to leave Bermuda have included children who have become the stepchild of a Bermudian; for example, when their parent marries a Bermudian.
Some end up as eternal students, hoping that this will give them a continuing connection to Bermuda if the law ever does change. Others walk away, making a new life overseas, with confused feelings about the homeland that rejected them. A small handful stay, devoted to Bermuda despite a precarious existence: sometimes refused work permits, periods of risking becoming illegal owing to unrenewed residency permits, no eligibility for financial assistance or healthcare coverage if they hit hard times, and where their own children born here likewise have no security.
The numbers we are talking about here are pretty small. Going from census data, it is about 20 children who reach adulthood each year without any Bermudian status — maybe 200 at present. Their families come from all walks of life. They’re mostly White — with Portuguese comprising a fair percentage of this — although a few are Black, “mixed race”, or “other”. Filipino, Indian, etc, may fall into this “other” category. For those children who cannot get PRC at age 18, there is a chance to apply for naturalisation as a British Overseas Territories citizen, which provides the right to live and work in Bermuda, but falls short of full Bermudian status. This is also a fraught process, and seemingly few are aware of it.
The new PRC routes will simplify things for these children, but will fall short of recognising them as full members of Bermudian society — it will deny them Bermudian status that could enable them to raise a Bermudian family and participate fully in the democratic process. If they settle in Bermuda with PRC, and have a spouse and children of their own, the default position will be that their spouse will require a work permit, and their children will be treated as alien residents. This default position can be improved only if the right immigration application is made at the right time.
Making the right immigration application at the right time often involves a high level of awareness of one’s rights, and in many cases will involve legal advice. Many working-class families struggle to pay for or obtain legal advice. There is very little official sympathy for these people who were unaware of their legal rights. It is a disquieting thought that we are entrenching a system where we will have third and fourth-generation descendants of immigrants who are still not accepted as Bermudian.
The government fees for these PRC applications are eye-watering. To obtain PRC for a typical family with two parents and two student adult children will cost more than $19,000. This is pocket change for some, but a huge sum for working-class families, especially if they are among those who struggle to even obtain a work permit, and are trying to put their children through university. Looking at other immigration application fees, it actually costs only a few hundred dollars for the Government to process these applications.
I have spoken to many working-class families in recent weeks who say they will struggle to come up with the application fees. In many cases, the 20-year qualification period comes at the exact time when they are also trying to put children through higher education. At the very least, consideration should be given to a discretionary low fee or rebate for those on lower incomes.
The bigger question is why is there such resistance to dishing out status to such a small handful of children each year? If the concern is changing the demographic profile of Bermudian status holders, these children — some of them being the third generation in Bermuda — are pretty well integrated into Bermudian culture. In any case, they are dwarfed demographically by the roughly 500 or so Bermudian children who reach adulthood each year. If the concern is impact on the PLP’s electoral prospects, even if every one of these children were to cast an anti-PLP vote, there is not a General Election since the PLP’s first victory in 1998 that would have been decided differently if these types of numbers were stacked against the PLP vote share.
These children have always had a compelling moral case behind them. For 13 years now, their situation has been neglected because of the more complex and nuanced issues surrounding status or PRC for other long-term residents. Their lack of status is a recent problem for which all political parties can share the blame. It was a United Bermuda Party government that placed an expiry date of July 31, 2008 in the law, which put an end to children born and brought up in Bermuda being able to apply for status. It was a PLP government that let it lapse on its watch, and it is successive One Bermuda Alliance and PLP governments that have done nothing to address it.
Whatever one might think of the most recent PRC routes for long-term residents, let’s keep our focus on the basic dignity and place in Bermuda of about 200 young people who, through no fault of their own, have been born and raised in Bermuda, see Bermuda as their homeland, but are still not accepted as equal members of this community. If we continue to cut them out of the Bermudian family, we are ultimately cutting ourselves.
• Peter Sanderson is a barrister and attorney at BeesMont Law. He has advised hundreds of families — both Bermudian and non-Bermudian — with respect to immigration matters